IT WAS AS DARK as it ever gets on Fifth Avenue, and as quiet.
Jennifer Maloy glanced at the streetlights and the steady stream of traffic, and pursed her lips in annoyance. She didn’t like all the light and activity, but there wasn’t much she could do about it. This was, after all, Fifth Avenue and 73rd Street in the city that never sleeps. It had been equally as busy the past few mornings she’d spent checking out the area and she had no reason to expect that conditions would ever get any better.
Hands thrust deep into the pockets of her trench coat, she strode past the five-story graystone apartment building and slipped into the alley behind it. Here was darkness and silence. She stepped into an area of the alley that was screened by a garbage Dumpster and smiled.
No matter how many times she’d done this, she thought, it was still exciting. Her pulse speeded up and she breathed faster in anticipation as she put on a hoodlike mask that obscured her finely sculpted features and hid the mass of blond hair tied in a knot at the back of her head. She took off her trench coat, folded it neatly, and set it down next to the Dumpster. Under the coat she wore only a brief black string bikini and running shoes. Her body was lean and gracefully muscular, with small breasts, slim hips, and long legs. She bent down, unlaced and removed her sneakers and put them next to the trench coat.
She ran a hand almost caressingly over the rear wall of the graystone apartment building, smiled, and then walked right through the wall.
It was the sound of a power saw biting into sodden hardwood. The whine of steel teeth made Jack’s own teeth ache as the all-too-familiar boy struggled to hide deeper within the cypress tangle.
“He in dere somewhere!” It was his uncle Jacques. The folks around Atelier Parish called him Snake Jake. Behind his back.
The boy bit his lip to keep from crying out. He bit deeper, tasting blood, to keep from changing. Sometimes that worked. Sometimes—
Again the steel saw shrieked into wet cypress. The boy ducked down low; brown, brackish water slopped against his mouth, into his nose. He choked as the bayou washed over his face.
“Tol’ you! Dat little gator-bait right dere. Get ’im.” Other voices joined in.
The power saw blade whined one more time.
Jack Robicheaux flailed out in the darkness, one arm trapped in the sweaty sheet, the other reaching for the phone. He slammed the Tiffany lamp back against the wall, cursed as he somehow caught its petals-and-stems base and steadied it on the bed table, then felt the cool smoothness of the telephone. He picked up the receiver in the middle of the fourth ring.
Jack started to curse again. Who the hell had this number? There was Bagabond, but she was in another room here in his home. Before he could get his lips to the mouthpiece, he knew.
“Jack?” said the voice on the other end of the line. Long-distance static washed out the sound for a second. “Jack, this is Elouette. I’m callin’ you from Louisiana.”
He smiled in the darkness. “Figured you were.” He snapped the lamp switch, but nothing happened. The filament must have broken when the lamp toppled.
“Never actually called this far before,” said Elouette. “Robert always dialed.” Robert was her husband.
“What time is it?” Jack said. He felt for his watch.
“’Bout five in the morning,” said his sister.
“What is it? Is it Ma?” He was waking up finally, pulling free from the fragments of the dream.
“No, Jack, Ma’s fine. Nothin’ll ever happen to her. She’ll outlive us both.”
“Then what?” He recognized the sharpness in his voice and tried to tone it down. It was just that Elouette’s words were so slow, her thoughts so drawn-out.
The silence, punctuated by bursts of static, dilated on the line. Finally Elouette said, “It’s my daughter.”
“Cordelia? What about her? What’s wrong?”
Another silence. “She’s run off.”
Jack felt an odd reaction. After all, he’d run away too, all those years before. Run away when he was a hell of a lot younger than Cordelia. What would she be now, fifteen? Sixteen? “Tell me what happened,” he said reassuringly.
Elouette did. Cordelia (she said) had given little warning. The girl had not come down for breakfast the morning before. Makeup, clothing, money, and an overnight bag were also gone. Her father had checked with Cordelia’s friends. There weren’t many. He called the parish sheriff. The patrols got the word. No one had seen her. The law’s best guess was that Cordelia had hitched a ride out on the blacktop.
The sheriff had shaken his head sadly. “Gal looks like that,” he’d said, “well, we got cause to worry.” He’d done what he could, but it had all taken precious time. It had finally been Cordelia’s father who’d come up with something. A girl with the same face (“Purtiest little thing I seen in a month,” the ticket clerk had said) and long, luxuriant, black hair (“Black as a new-moon bayou sky,” said a porter) had boarded a bus in Baton Rouge.
“It was Greyhound,” Elouette said. “One-way fare to New York City. By the time we found out, the police said it wasn’t none too practical to try and stop it in New Jersey.” Her voice shook slightly, as though she wanted to cry.
“It’ll be okay,” said Jack. “When’s she supposed to get here?”
“About seven,” Elouette said. “Seven your time.”
“Merde.” Jack swung his legs off the bed and sat up in the darkness.
“Can you get there, Jack? Can you find her?”
“Sure,” he said. “But I gotta leave now for Port Authority, or I won’t make it in time.”
“Thanks be,” Elouette said. “Call me after you’ve met her?”
“I will. Then we’ll figure out what to do next. Now I go, okay?”
“Okay. I’ll be right here. Maybe Robert will be back too.” Trust filled her voice. “Thanks, Jack.”
He put down the phone and stumbled across the room. He found the wall switch and finally was able to see in the windowless room. Yesterday’s work clothes were strewn over the rough slab bench to one side. Jack pulled on the well-worn jeans and green cotton shirt. He grimaced at the fragrant work socks, but they were all he had. Today being his day off, he’d planned to spend it at a laundromat. He laced the steel-toed leather boots quickly, catching every other pair of eyelets.
When he opened the door leading into the rest of his home, Bagabond, the two huge cats, a passel of kittens, and a goggle-faced raccoon were all there in the doorway, silently staring at him. In the dimness of the lamp-lit living room beyond, Jack made out the gleam of Bagabond’s dark brown hair and even darker eyes, her high, shadowed cheekbones, the lightness of her skin.
“Jesus, Mother Mary!” he said, stepping back. “Don’ scare me like that.” He took a deep breath and felt the tough, grainy hide on the back of his hands become soft again.
“Didn’t mean to,” said Bagabond. The black cat rubbed up against Jack’s leg. His back nestled along the man’s kneecap. His purr sounded like a contented coffee grinder. “Heard the phone. You okay?”
“I’ll tell you on the way to the door.” He gave Bagabond a précis as he stopped in the kitchen to decant the last of yesterday’s coffee sludge into a foam cup he could carry with him.
Bagabond touched his wrist. “Want us to come along? Day like this, a few more eyes might be valuable at the bus station.”
Jack shook his head. “Shouldn’t be any problem. She’s sixteen and never been in any big city before. Just watched a lot of TV, her mama says. I’ll be right there at the bus door to meet her.”
“She know that?” said Bagabond.
Jack stooped to give the black a quick rub behind the ears. The calico meowed and moved over to take her turn. “Nope. Probably she was going to phone me once she got here. This’ll just save time.”
“Offer’s still open.”
“I’ll have her back here for breakfast before you know it.” Jack paused. “Maybe not. She’ll want to talk, so maybe I’ll take her to the Automat. She won’t have seen anything like that back in Atelier.” He straightened up and the cats yowled disappointedly. “Besides, you’ve got an appointment with Rosemary, right?”
Bagabond nodded dubiously. “Nine.”
“Just don’t worry. Maybe we can all have lunch. Depends on how much of a zoo downtown turns into. Maybe we can pick up take-out at a Korean deli and have a picnic on the Staten Island Ferry.” He leaned toward the woman and gave her a quick kiss on the forehead. Before she could even halfway raise her hands to grasp his arms and reciprocate, he was gone. Out the door. Out of her perception.
“Damn it,” she said. The cats looked up at her, confused but sympathetic. The raccoon hugged her ankle.
Jennifer Maloy slipped through the lower two floors of the apartment building like a ghost, disturbing nothing and no one, neither seen nor heard. She knew that the building had gone condo some time ago and what she wanted was on the uppermost of the three floors that were owned by a rich businessman with the unfortunate name of Kien Phuc. He was Vietnamese. He owned a string of restaurants and dry-cleaning establishments. At least that’s what they’d said on the segment of New York Style she’d seen on PBS two weeks ago. Jennifer really enjoyed that show, which took its viewers on tours of the artsy and stylish homes of the city’s upper class. It presented her with endless possibilities and tons of useful information.
She floated through the third floor, where Kien’s servants lived. She had no idea what was on the fourth floor, since it had been ignored by the television cameras, so she bypassed it and headed for Kien’s living quarters on the top floor. He lived there alone in eight rooms of unrelieved luxury and opulence—decadence, almost. Jennifer had never realized there was that much money in laundromats and Chinese restaurants.
It was dark on the fifth floor, and quiet. She avoided the bedroom with the circular, mirror-ceilinged bed (a little tacky, she’d thought when she’d seen it on TV), and the fabulous hand-painted silk screens. She bypassed the Western-style sitting room with its two-thousand-year-old bronze Buddha gazing benignly from a place of honor next to a fabulous electronic entertainment center complete with a wide-screen television, VCR, and compact disc player with accompanying racks of video and audio tapes and discs. She wanted the study.
It was as dark there as it was on the rest of the floor, and she started when she saw a vague, shadowy figure looming beside the huge teakwood desk that dominated the room’s back wall. Although impervious to physical attack while ghosting, she wasn’t immune to surprise, and this figure hadn’t been filmed by the New York Style cameras.
She quickly faded into a nearby wall, but the figure didn’t move or even show any sign that it had noticed her. She cautiously slipped into the study again, and was relieved and astonished to see that the thing was a large, nearly-six-foot-tall terra-cotta figure of an Oriental warrior. The workmanship of the piece was breathtaking. Facial features, clothing, weaponry, all were molded with exquisite delicacy of detail. It was as if a living man had been turned to clay, baked to a flawless finish in a kiln, and preserved down through the millennia, ending up in Kien’s study. Her respect for Kien’s wealth—and influence—went up another notch. The figure was undoubtedly authentic—Kien had made it clear during the television interview that he had no truck with imitations—and from what she knew, the 2200-year-old terra-cotta grave figures of the emperor Ying Zheng, first emperor of the Qin dynasty and unifier of China, were absolutely positively unavailable to private art collectors. Kien must have gone through considerable feats of legerdemain and bribery to obtain it.
It was a fantastically valuable piece, but, Jennifer knew, too large for her to remove and probably too unique for her to fence.
She felt a sudden wave of dizziness ripple through her insubstantial form, and quickly willed herself to solidity. She didn’t like that feeling. It happened whenever she overextended herself, as a warning that she had stayed insubstantial for too long. She didn’t know what would happen if she remained a wraith for too long. She never wanted to find out.
Now substantial, she looked around the room. It was lined with display cases containing Kien’s collection of jades, the most beautiful, extensive, and valuable collection in the Western world. Kien had been profiled on New York Style because of them and they were what she had come for. Some of them, at least. She realized that she couldn’t get them all even if she made a dozen trips back to the alley, because her ability to turn extraneous mass insubstantial was limited. She could only ghost a few jades at a time. But a few, really, were all she needed.
First, though, before starting on the jades, there was something else she had to do. The thick pile of the luxurious carpet feeling quite sensuous on the soles of her bare feet, she glided around the teakwood desk almost as quietly as if she were insubstantial, and stood before the Hokusai print hanging on the wall behind it.
Behind the print, so Kien had said, was a wall safe. He had mentioned it because, he had said, it was absolutely, one hundred percent, totally, and irrevocably, burglarproof. No thief knew enough about microcircuitry to circumvent its electronic lock and it was strong enough to withstand a physical assault short of a bomb big enough to bring down the whole building. No one, no how, at no time, could possibly break into it. Kien, who had looked very smug as he’d said all this, evidently was a man who liked to brag.
A mischievous smile on her face as she wondered what riches Kien had hidden in his high-tech safe, Jennifer ghosted her right arm and put her hand through the print and the steel door behind it.
He juggled her in his arms while he fished for his key, and finally unlocked the door.
“You idiot, put me down. Then you can open the door.”
“Nope, going to carry you over.”
“We haven’t gotten married.”
“Yet,” he said, and grinned down into her face.
Her angle, from where she reclined in his arms, intensified the deformity of his neck, and made his head look like a baseball perched on a pedestal. Aside from that neck—a legacy of the wild card virus—he was a rather handsome man. Short-cropped brown hair, beginning to gray at the temples, merry brown eyes, strong chin—a nice face.
He negotiated the door, and set her on her feet. “My castle. Hope you like it.”
It proclaimed the blue-collar origins of this man. Serviceable couch, recliner placed before the television, a stack of Reader’s Digests on the coffee table, a large and poorly executed oil painting of a sailing ship clawing through improbably high seas. The sort of painting one found at starving-artist sales in Hilton hotels.
But it was scrupulously clean, and in a touch that seemed out of character in so large and powerful a man, a row of multicolored African violets lined the windowsills.
“Roulette, I haven’t stayed out all night since my high school prom.”
“I’ll just bet you stayed out all night.”
He blushed. “Hey, I was good Catholic boy.”
“My momma always warned me about good Catholic boys.”
He moved in, wrapped brawny arms about her waist. “I’m not quite so ‘good’ anymore.”
“I hope that refers to your morals, and not to your performance, Stan.”
“Prude,” she teased.
He nuzzled her neck, and nibbled on her earlobe, and Roulette pondered yet again the random nature of wild card that it should have struck this very ordinary “sandhog,” and made him more than human.
She reached up, and stroked her hands down the sides of his swollen throat. “Does it ever bother you?”
“Being the Howler? Hell, no. Makes me special, and I always wanted to be special. Used to drive my old man crazy. He always said water was good enough for our kind of people, meaning not to get above myself. He’d sure be surprised now. Hey.” He reached out, caught a tear on the tip of one thick finger. “What are you crying about?”
“Nothing. I just … I found that sad.”
“Well, come on. I’ll show you how good my performance can be.”
“Before breakfast?” she asked, trying to delay the inevitable.
“Sure, give us a better appetite.”
She followed him resignedly into the bedroom.
Jennifer felt around inside of the safe and touched something that felt like a stack of coins nestled in a small pouch. She tried to ghost one of the coins and frowned when it remained solid.
Probably gold, she thought, Krugerrands or Canadian Maple Leafs.
It was difficult to ghost dense materials like metal, particularly gold, requiring a deeper level of concentration and a greater input of energy. She decided to leave the coins where they were for now, and continued to explore the safe.
Her hand caressed a flat rectangular object that ghosted a lot easier than the coin. She drew three small notebooks through the wall, and, unable to see details in the darkness, switched on the small tensor lamp that sat on the top of the teakwood desk. Two of the books, she could now see, had plain black covers. The third had a blue cloth cover with a bamboo pattern. She flipped open the top book in the stack.
Squares of brightly colored bits of paper were stuck in rows of pockets on the notebook’s thick pages. Postage stamps. The ones in the top row seemed to be British, but they had words in another language and the date 1922 overprinted on them. She bent down closer to examine them, and froze as a tiny sound came from somewhere outside the cone of light illuminating part of the desktop.
She glanced up and saw nothing. Her eyes now accustomed to the light, she tilted the shade of the lamp outward, throwing illumination over the far reaches of the desk.
And she froze, her heart suddenly in her throat.
On the far corner of the desk was a five-gallon jar, about the size of a water cooler jug. Only this jar was glass, not plastic, and it wasn’t connected to anything. It stood on a flat base on the edge of the desk, home to the thing that floated in it.
It was little more than a foot high, with green, glabrous, somewhat-warty skin. It floated with its head clear of the water, its web-fingered hands pressed against the glass, its human eyes staring at Jennifer out of a pinched face. They looked at one another for a long moment and then it opened its mouth and cried out in a high-pitched, wailing voice, “Kiennnnnn! Thieffffff! Thiefffff!”
New York Style had said nothing about Kien having a batrachian joker watchdog, Jennifer thought giddily as lights snapped on in other rooms. She heard sounds of commotion in other parts of the condo and the joker in the glass jar continued to scream for Kien in an ululating voice that seemed to bypass her ears and pierce directly into her brain.
Concentrate, she told herself, concentrate, or the daring sneak thief, the self-proclaimed Wraith, will be captured and exposed as Jennifer Maloy, reference librarian at the New York Public Library. She’d lose her job and go to jail for sure. And what would her mother think?
There was motion at the door and someone flicked on the study’s overhead light. Jennifer saw a tall, slim, reptilian-looking joker. He hissed at her, his long, forked tongue lolling out an impossible length. He raised a pistol and fired. His aim was accurate, but the bullet ricocheted harmlessly off the wall. Jennifer was rapidly sinking through the floor, the three notebooks clutched tightly against her chest.
With Jack gone, Bagabond entered her morning ritual still wearing the tiger-striped robe he had given her. Sitting back in one of the red velvet overstuffed chairs, she closed her eyes and pinpointed the creatures who shared her life. The calico cat fed her young kittens as the black cat guarded them. The raccoon slept with his head against her ankles. He was tired from a night of prowling around Jack’s Victorian lodgings. Bagabond hoped he had not disturbed anything important. She had set guards in the raccoon’s head, warning him off Jack’s belongings. Lately they had proven quite effective, but she never forgot the fight she had had with Jack when the raccoon had removed every one of his Pogo books from their shelf.
Reaching to stroke the raccoon, she expanded her consciousness out into the city. It was easy now, a waking ritual—although more and more, when she wasn’t around Jack, Bagabond kept a nocturnal schedule. For years she had maintained their relationship as a casual one, showing up only when the weather was extremely bad or on days like this, when strangers found their way into places where they normally were too timid to venture. If Jack was home, she stayed. If he was gone, she moved on to another burrow. Lately, though, she had begun to seek his company more often, finding excuses to visit. Jack and Rosemary had both become very important to her, in ways she was not always able to define. It had taken years to trust them, but once she granted that trust, it was frighteningly easy to depend on them to be there for her. She shook her head angrily, unhappy to be distracted into thinking about things that were not under her control, and losing track of the creatures which were.
Waking and hunting with her creatures seemed more natural now. Her mind moved among the rats in the tunnels, the moles, rabbits, opossums, squirrels, pigeons, and other birds. She took the night’s death toll. There were always many who did not survive. She had learned that there could be no escape for the victims. Many died to feed the predatory animals; others were killed by men. Once she had tried to save them, to protect the prey from the predators. It had nearly driven her insane again. The natural cycle of life, death, and birth was stronger than she, and so Bagabond had begun to work within it. The animals died; there were more to take their places. Only human interference could upset the rhythm. She couldn’t control humans yet. Briefly she touched the inhabitants of the zoo. Hate for the cages colored her impression. Someday, she promised the zoo prisoners again. Someday …
A warm paw on her cheek brought her back. The black cat, all forty pounds of him, lay across her chest. When her eyes opened, he licked her nose. She reached up and scratched him behind his ear.
There was a touch of gray on his muzzle now, but he still moved like a younger cat most days. She sent him the warm feeling she thought of as love. He purred and sent her the image of the calico keeping the kittens away from Jack’s Victorian furniture. If not closely watched, the kittens found the lion’s-paw legs wonderful scratching posts.
Well, old friend, Jack turned me down again last night. What do you think is wrong? The subvocalized question received only a querying look from the cat at first, but then he sent the image of a hundred of Bagabond’s creatures around her.
Yes, I know you’re all there, but every once in a while I want another human. She created the image of the black and the calico together as mates. The black returned a vision of Bagabond and a human-sized cat. Bagabond nodded as she looked over at the kittens at play. Not my type, unfortunately.
She wondered why Jack refused to sleep with her. Her frustration and lack of understanding were beginning to turn to anger. It had only begun the last year. Each time she played with the kittens, she felt a lack in her own life.
The feeling angered her, but she couldn’t deny it. Recently she had turned to Jack for comfort, but for once he had turned her away. She resolved not to ask again.
Without the layers of dirt and ancient clothing that protected her in the world outside, she knew she was not unattractive. To spare her other friend Rosemary embarrassment, she had learned to dress on rare occasions in an acceptable fashion. It never felt right, though. Those were the times she was really in costume and she hated them. Perhaps she had become too involved with Jack and Rosemary. Perhaps it was time to go underground again.
The black followed the tone of her thoughts, even if he could not translate their abstract meanings. He added his approval of their severing the relationship with the humans by sending an image of some of their former lairs.
But not today. Today I have to go over to see Rosemary. Bagabond pulled herself up out of the chair and walked over to piles of old, dirty, and shapeless clothing, which provided most of her wardrobe. The black cat and two kittens followed.
No, you’re staying here. Jack may want to reach me. Besides, it is hard enough for me to get into her office without you along. She shifted her attention. Blue coat or green army jacket?
There were thirteen black candles in the room. When they burned, the wax turned the color of fresh blood and ran down the sides. Now the room was turning gray and their narrow circles of light were starting to fade.
“Do you know what time it is?”
Fortunato looked up. Veronica stood next to him in pink cotton panties and a ripped T-shirt, arms crossed over her breasts. “Almost dawn,” he said.
“Are you coming to bed?” She turned her head sideways and waves of black hair fell across her face.
“Maybe later. Don’t stand like that, it makes your stomach stick out.”
“Yes, o sensei.” The sarcasm was muted, childish. A few seconds later he heard the bathroom door lock. If she wasn’t Miranda’s daughter, he thought, he would have put her back on the street weeks ago.
He stretched, stared for a few seconds at the murky clouds taking shape in the eastern sky. Then he went back to the Work in front of him.
He’d covered the five-pointed star on his floor with tatami, and on them he’d laid the Mirror of Hathor. It was about a foot long, with an image of the goddess where the handle met the solar disk. Her cow horns made her look a little like a medieval jester. It was made of brass, the front reflective for clairvoyance, the back abraded to rebound an enemy’s attacks. He’d ordered it from an aging hippie in the East Village and had spent the last two days purifying it with rituals for all nine major deities.
For months he’d been increasingly unable to think of anything but his enemy, the one who called himself the Astronomer, who’d commanded a vast network of Egyptian Masons until Fortunato and the others had destroyed the nest he’d made at the Cloisters. The Astronomer had escaped, even if the evil thing he’d brought from space hadn’t. The months of silence had only made Fortunato more and more afraid.
The Bornless Ritual, the Acrostics of Abramelin, the Spheres of the Qabalah, all of Western Magick had let him down. He had to use the Astronomer’s own Magick against him. Had to find him, somehow, despite the blocks he’d set up that made him invisible to Fortunato.
The trick to Egyptian Magick—the real thing, not the Astronomer’s warped and bloody version—was to go at it from their reverence for animals. Fortunato had spent his entire life in Manhattan, Harlem at first, then downtown once he could afford it. To him animals were poodles that left their shit on the sidewalk or listless, foul-smelling caricatures that slept their lives away at the zoo. He’d never liked or understood them.
It was an attitude he could no longer afford. He’d let Veronica bring her cat to the apartment, a vain, overweight gray tabby named Liz, in honor of the movie star. At the moment the cat was asleep on his crossed legs, her claws hooked into the silk of his robe. The cat’s primitive value system was a doorway into the Egyptian universe.
He picked up the mirror. He just about had the mind-set. He watched his reflection: lean face, brown skin a little blotchy from lack of sleep, forehead swollen with rasa, the Tantric power of retained sperm. Slowly his features began to melt and run.
He heard a sound from the bathroom, a muffled sigh, and his concentration broke. And then, instead of the Astronomer, he was looking into the mirror and seeing Veronica. She sat on the toilet, her panties around her ankles. In her left hand was a pocket mirror, in her right a short piece of red-striped soda straw. Her head rolled loosely on her neck and she rubbed her cheek against her shoulder.
He put the Mirror of Hathor back on the mat. The junk didn’t surprise him; it was just that she would do it here, right here in his apartment. He moved the protesting cat off his lap and went to the bathroom. He popped the lock with his mind and kicked the door open and Veronica’s head jerked up guiltily. “Hey,” she said.
“Pack your shit and get out,” Fortunato said.
“Hey, ’s jus’ a li’l coke, man.”
“For Christ’s sake, how stupid do you think I am? Do you think I don’t know smack when I see it? How long you been on this shit?”
She shrugged, dropped the mirror and straw into her open purse. She stood up, nearly tripped, then saw her feet tangled in her panties. She balanced herself on the towel rack while she pulled them up and snapped the purse closed. “Couple months,” she said. “But I’m not on anything. I jus’ do it sometimes. ’Scuse me.”
Fortunato let her by. “What the hell’s the matter with you? Don’t you care what you’re doing to yourself?”
“Care? I’m a fucking hooker, why should I care?”
“You’re not a hooker, goddammit, you’re a geisha.” He followed her into the bedroom. “You’ve got brains and class and—”
“Geisha my ass,” she said, sitting heavily on the end of the bed. “I fuck men for money. That’s the goddamn bottom line.” She pushed her unresisting leg into her pantyhose, the big toenail laddering a run all the way down the right side. “You like to kid yourself with all this geisha shit, but real geishas don’t fuck for money. You’re a pimp and I’m a whore and that’s all there is to it.”
Before Fortunato could say anything somebody started hammering at the front door. Lines of tension and urgency radiated from the hallway, but nothing threatening. Nothing that couldn’t wait.
“I don’t put up with junkies,” he said.
“You don’t? Don’t make me laugh. Half the girls in your stable take at least a snort now and then. Five or six are on the needle. Big time.”
“Who? Is Caroline—”
“No, your precious Caroline is straight. Not that you’d know if she wasn’t. You don’t know what the fuck is going on.”
“I don’t believe you. I can’t—”
There was a scraping sound in the front room and the door came open. A man named Brennan stood in the doorway, a strip of plastic in one hand. In the other was a slightly oversized leather attaché case. In it, Fortunato knew, was a disassembled hunting bow and a rack of broadhead arrows.
“Fortunato,” he said. “Sorry, but I—” His eyes moved to Veronica, who had peeled off her T-shirt and was holding her breasts in her hands.
“Hi,” she said. “Wanna fuck me? All it takes is money.” She teased her nipples with her thumbs and licked her lips. “How much you got? Two dollars? Buck and a half?” Tears ran out of her eyes and a line of mucus leaked out of one nostril.
“Shut up,” Fortunato said. “Shut the fuck up.”
“Why don’t you slap me around?” she said. “That’s what a pimp’s supposed to do, isn’t it?”
Fortunato looked back at Brennan. “Maybe you should come back later,” he said.
“I don’t know if it can wait,” Brennan said. “It’s the Astronomer.”
Copyright © 1987 by George R. R. Martin
GEORGE R. R. MARTIN’s Song of Ice and Fire series, beginning with A Game of Thrones, is among the top-selling fantasy novels of this generation and is now an award-winning HBO series. Martin lives in New Mexico.